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NSA Iraqi Computer Attacks And U.S. Defense

A National Journal Magazine article called "The Cyberwar Plan" has been making waves the last few days in our circles -- it's about how cell phone and computer attacks were supposedly used against Iraqi insurgents by the National Security Agency (NSA). Its significance is far more than just what's on the surface, however.
A National Journal Magazine article called "The Cyberwar Plan" has been making waves the last few days in our circles -- it's about how cell phone and computer attacks were supposedly used against Iraqi insurgents by the National Security Agency (NSA). Its significance is far more than just what's on the surface, however.The article describes several issues and that in my opinion confuses what matters: the supposed computerized attacks in Iraq, and the cyber offensive capabilities being admitted, their impact on the United States' cyber defense stance, international relations, and diplomacy.

By the description in the article, some of the techniques used in Iraq were blocked cell phone signals, users (terrorists) were located and possibly "dealt with," and disinformation was sent to them to disrupt enemy operations or lead them into ambushes.


"With this capability, the Americans could deceive their adversaries with false information, including messages to lead unwitting insurgents into the fire of waiting U.S. soldiers."

While these operations, if the claims are true, could certainly be achieved by computerized attacks, it seems like overkill. It makes much more sense that while computerized attacks were used, trusted older techniques took point -- SIGINT (Signals Intelligence) to locate and decipher communication sources and networks, EW (Electronic Warfare) to interfere with them, and Intelligence Warfare, or Information Operations, to seed disinformation.

In the U.S., information operations such as the latter are a part of information warfare doctrine, right along with computer attacks. Which means the terminology needs to be double-checked when looking at an American source. In this case, however, officials are clearly stating computer attacks were used.

The article also mentions a 1999 operation in Yugoslavia, which was a proof of concept and therefore not fully utilized:


"The U.S. conducted its first focused experiments with cyberattacks during the 1999 bombing of Yugoslavia, when it intervened to stop the slaughter of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. An information operations cell was set up as part of the bombing campaign. The cell's mission was to penetrate the Serbian national air defense system, published accounts and knowledgeable officials said, and to make fake signals representing aircraft show up on Serbian screens. The false signals would have confused the Serbian response to the invasion and perhaps destroyed commanders' confidence in their own defenses."
Regardless of what the precise technology used in Iraq was, the U.S. admitting to the use of such capabilities during actual fighting is fascinating, which brings me to why this article is so interesting. If the reports mentioned are true, it is plausible the U.S. now employs two additional information warfare strategies:

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Kirsten Powell, Senior Manager for Security & Risk Management at Adobe
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